Numbers Are Anything BUT Black and White

Photo by anncapictures on Pixabay.

It seems so simple: look at the numbers, and it’ll be apparent what the story is and what steps you need to take. Case closed. Problem solved. All very logical. Your data analytics have done the trick!

Sometimes it works like that.

  • “My revenue is up 50% over last year, so I can definitely go ahead and hire that new employee.”
  • “Our last Google Ads campaign had a 75% conversion rate, so we’re going to continue using that marketing channel for the holiday season.”

But sometimes the story that our numbers are telling us is less optimistic, or less straightforward. We still need to communicate the story, though. In those cases, it helps to remember that we’re dealing with human beings, and that emotions play a huge role in something that seems as black and white as data.

Photo by anncapictures on Pixabay.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

I was reminded of this book a couple of weeks ago while teaching my “Data Analytics for Leaders” workshop. In it, economist Daniel Kahneman lays out his theory of how the human brain is wired and the impact of that wiring on how we as humans make decisions. Kahneman argues that we have two cognitive systems, a “fast” one and a “slow” one. The fast one is controlled by the amygdala, and its purpose is to protect us from threats. Speed is key in making decisions where an immediate threat is perceived. By contrast the “slow” system is more deliberative and rational. Since it’s not responding to an immediate threat, it can take the time to process and react.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

What Does This Have To Do With Data Analytics?

When we approach data, it can happen that our amygdala kicks into high gear because we perceive numbers as a threat. It could be that simply dealing with numbers is enough to trigger the feeling of fear. Or maybe the story that the numbers tell isn’t a positive one, and so our audience perceives it as a threat.

If this happens, we run the risk of having our audience shut down completely. They’ll go into defensive mode. They won’t be able to hear what we’re saying. And they won’t be able to process the information or hear the story that the data is telling. That can be dangerous.

How to Tell the Story So People Will Hear

How can you get around this? Plan ahead for that knee-jerk defensiveness, and try to short-circuit it. Engage your audience in your thinking about the numbers, and what story they’re telling. Ask questions like:

  • “Is there some background to these numbers that make a difference?”
  • “Can you help me think about what else might be happening here?”
  • “How about we work together on a plan to mitigate the impact of what the data is saying?”

Strategies like these disarm the amygdala, stave off that tripwire, and build a productive relationship with the person. Now you’re a team trying to solve a problem. And those numbers are no match for the two of you!

Connect With Me

If you find yourself with questions you’re not sure how to answer, or stories you’re not sure how to tell, I’d be happy to weigh in. You can sign up here for a free 30-minute consultation via Zoom. We can talk through your plot, go over your questions, and I can give you some ideas about questions you might not have thought of yet.

I look forward to connecting!

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